Video: Police Chief Pete Demnitz on immigration enforcement
By Kevin Coughlin
Morristown’s mayor and police chief told nervous immigrants on Tuesday that they have nothing to fear from them.
“I appreciate the fear. You do not have to have this fear here,” Police Chief Pete Demnitz told residents and immigration advocates who asked the town council to declare the town a “Fair & Welcoming” place for immigrants with and without documentation.
Madison and Maplewood have adopted such designations to show opposition to President Trump’s immigration policies.
The President’s agenda includes attempts to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries, an executive order cutting federal grants to “sanctuary cities” that go easy on undocumented residents, and plans to erect a wall on the Mexican border.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty said he intends to schedule a community forum after he meets with area clergy members on Wednesday.
At most, bucking Trump might cost Morristown $4,000 in federal funds, estimated Dougherty. He asserted his opposition to 287(g), a federal program to deputize police as immigration officers.
“We took the position eight years ago that as mayor, I would not enforce that policy. As mayor, I will still not enforce that policy, and as long as I am mayor, 287(g) will never exist in the town of Morristown,” said Dougherty, who seeks a third term.
The police chief said the prior mayor vowed to fire him a decade ago for opposing the program.
“There is nobody that fought 287(g) more than me 10 years ago,” Demnitz said, to applause. “I almost got fired over it. I’ve stayed silent on that for 10 years.”
Morristown police only contact Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] bureau “when someone is arrested on probable cause for a serious crime. And that is aggravated sexual assault and homicide. That is the only time,” Demnitz said.
While the chief encouraged the council to declare Morristown “Fair & Welcoming,” he contended: “It already is.”
SAFER IN THE SHADOWS
About one-third of the town’s population is Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. The number of undocumented residents is unknown. On Tuesday, council members heard impassioned appeals in English and Spanish from people with dramatic stories.
Karol Ruiz, a lawyer who volunteers for the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit immigrant advocacy organization, recounted crossing the border from Mexico in 1985, when she was 7.
Her family was fleeing Colombia, where a civil war and drug war struck too close to home: Ruiz said her father was stabbed, and her pregnant mother had a gun aimed at her head.
The family settled in a poor section of Morristown and feared police would find them.
“But we knew as long as we lived in the shadows in Morristown, it was safer than in Colombia,” said Ruiz. She became a U.S. citizen in 2011. “The path is very, very long and arduous,” she said.
The Rev. Charles Perez, associate pastor of the Morristown United Methodist Church, said his father at one time was a homeless Cuban refugee. He described his immigrant parents as good citizens who struggled to give him a better life.
“By the grace of God, I got my master’s, and became the man I am today,” Perez said. “It breaks my heart to see people walking in fear.”
Father Hernan Arias of St. Margaret of Scotland Roman Catholic Church and the Rev. Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship also spoke on behalf of undocumented residents.
Some parishioners at St. Margaret’s are “afraid to open their door, afraid someone will be waiting to take them to immigration centers,” Father Hernan said.
Don Kissil, 83, is the son of Russian immigrants. He said he was shaken by last week’s deportation of a Mexican mother of two who had spent nearly 20 years in Arizona.
Kissil choked up relating the local story of a tearful 9-year-old boy whose classmates taunted him that his father, an undocumented laborer, soon would be deported.
“I eat in an awful lot of restaurants in Morristown. And almost every restaurant that I eat in is either served by or owned by immigrants,” Kissil continued. “This is not just a diverse community. This is people we meet every day.”
‘DOESN’T THIS COUNTRY HAVE LAWS, TOO?’
Others see the situation differently.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb, a Republican, said it was her understanding that President Trump only intends to deport criminals.
Bill Byrne, who advocates frequently for the disabled, said diversity is great. “But doesn’t this country have laws, too? I think we’re missing the big picture… We’ve got ISIS. I’m not saying everybody’s a terrorist. I’m just saying we’ve got to be careful.”
Immigration is a federal responsibility, and town officials have sworn to uphold the Constitution, Neal Kramer reminded the council.
“That is the law of the land,” he said, describing himself as a longtime volunteer at the Community Soup Kitchen.
His European grandparents immigrated lawfully, he said, spending time on Ellis Island where their health was checked and their credentials were vetted.
“They were not allowed off Ellis Island until a citizen vouched for them and pledged to support them,” Kramer said. “A lot of people think that’s wrong today.”
Both sides deserve consideration, said the Mayor. “That’s what democracy’s all about.” Any discussions about a “Fair & Welcoming” status should involve the business community as well, said Councilman Robert Iannaccone.
“Let’s try not to be angry,” said Councilwoman Hiliari Davis. “It’s a stressful time for everybody.”